Gauging the market for hitters
Potential landing sites and dollars for Nelson Cruz and Shin-Soo Choo
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It wasn't a huge day at Major League Baseball's winter meetings, but there was enough activity to create a ripple effect. Hot Stove moves rarely exist in a vacuum, so every trade or free-agent signing is destined to have repercussions for players who are next in the pecking order.
The Seattle Mariners, who've been quite adept at making news this offseason, continued to reshape their lineup with a pair of transactions Wednesday. They signed former Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Corey Hart to a one-year, guaranteed $6 million deal, with incentives that could bring the total package to $13 million. And they traded reliever Carter Capps to Miami for first baseman Logan Morrison, who had unofficially lost his job when the Marlins signed free agent Garrett Jones.
Hart and Morrison both arrive in Seattle accompanied by questions. Hart is coming off two knee surgeries that forced him to miss the entire 2013 season. Morrison's slugging percentage has dipped from .468 to .399 to .375 over the past three years, and he hit only six home runs in 293 at-bats in 2013.
Since neither move is official and has yet to be confirmed by the Mariners, it's uncertain precisely where the new arrivals fit on the lineup card and in the field. But a baseball source said the Mariners are hoping that Hart can split time between the outfield and at designated hitter in 2014. As for Morrison, he slots in at first base with the occasional turn at DH.
The Hart and Morrison acquisitions were complementary moves in the grand scheme of things, but they helped nudge the winterlong musical chairs extravaganza another step or two closer to a conclusion. Moving forward, here's where things stand with some other hitters who could be affected:
Even after signing Robinson Cano and bringing Hart and Morrison into the fold, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik doesn't appear ready to close the door on upgrades to an offense that ranked 12th in the American League with 624 runs scored. The Mariners have been ardent Cruz pursuers from the start of the winter, and one baseball source said they'll continue to be in the mix for him.
Cruz has a few other potential landing sites. The Texas Rangers would like to bring him back on a two- or three-year deal, and the Baltimore Orioles could use an impact bat in left field. ESPN.com's Jayson Stark has also speculated that the Kansas City Royals could jump into the fray if they trade Billy Butler for pitching. But that's a complicated, long-shot scenario at best.
Estimates of Cruz's payout have been all over the map. Could the Mariners go to five years and $75 million for him? Troll the lobby at the winter meetings, and you'll find people who think Cruz could land a deal comparable to Curtis Granderson's four-year, $60 million contract with the Mets. Given Cruz's age and production, that might not be out of whack.
It's the PED issue that complicates matters. Cruz and Jhonny Peralta both received 50-game suspensions through their involvement with the Biogenesis scandal last season. Peralta received a four-year, $53 million contract from St. Louis. The difference is, Peralta plays shortstop and Cruz plays the corner outfield.
"I think he's looking for 'Hey, I didn't have any problems' money," an American League personnel man said of Cruz. "He saw what Peralta got, and he probably thought, 'This shouldn't affect me, either.' I just think the market is different for up-the-middle players. Nelson Cruz is good, but there are more people who can do what Cruz does than what Jhonny Peralta does."
Cruz's appeal lies in his power. Since the start of the 2009 season, he's tied with Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria for 17th place among major league hitters with 135 home runs. The list of players immediately behind them: Adrian Beltre, Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto.
The speculation over Choo and his expectations gets more frenzied by the day. Agent Scott Boras has always been looking for a package north of Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million deal with the Washington Nationals. Now there's buzz at the winter meetings that Boras wants $140 million-plus and eight years instead of seven.
The Texas Rangers have an interest in both Choo and Cruz, and they seem content to wait until they can sign one for a price they're comfortable with. As general manager Jon Daniels told reporters Wednesday, the Rangers feel no sense of "desperation or urgency" to chase a bat. They're planning to sit back and let the market come to them.
The Detroit Tigers appear to be out of the mix for Choo now that they've added Rajai Davis to their outfield alignment, but it's a mistake to discount them completely as long as Boras has a personal pipeline to owner Mike Ilitch.
Boras, meanwhile, isn't exactly downplaying Choo's magical powers with a bat.
"He's really a player I think is revered," Boras said Wednesday at the meetings. Does that sound like an agent who's lacking in confidence?James Loney
He looks like a major beneficiary of the Mariners' recent burst of activity. Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay all need a first-base bat, and Morrison was a potential target for all three. Now he's suddenly out of the picture, and he's gone to a team that no one expected would trade for a first baseman. That leaves more negotiating options for Loney.
The Rays might have to go to three years and $20 million-plus to entice Loney to return to Tampa Bay. Although he flourished in 2013 and clearly enjoyed his time in Tampa, Loney provided little insight into his thought process in a recent phone conversation with manager Joe Maddon.
"He was very noncommittal in [our] conversation," Maddon said. "He was very nice, very cordial, very good. But I think he's in a position right now to probably go after the best contract he's ever going to get. So do I blame him? No. Do I want him back? Yes."
Teams in search of first-base help who don't want to splurge on Loney can choose from the above four options in trade. The Toronto Blue Jays will listen on Lind, and the Rangers are keeping an open mind on Moreland, but both players will probably stay put unless their teams can find the right package in return.
The New York Mets have been much more active in shopping Davis, whose OPS has declined from .925 to .771 to .661 since 2011. The Mets spoke to the Brewers earlier this week and talks went nowhere when they asked for pitcher Tyler Thornburg, but that doesn't mean discussions can't be revisited.
Finally, there's Smoak. If the Mariners loved what he brings to the table, they wouldn't have gone out and acquired Morrison. Seattle's first base-DH glut will be eased somewhat if manager Lloyd McClendon can play Hart in the outfield and divvy up the first-base and DH at-bats between Hart and Smoak. But it won't shock anyone if Smoak is dealt before spring training. Like Davis, he's a prime candidate for a change of scenery.
The Mariners gave Morales a $14.1 million qualifying offer in November, and you have to wonder if he's going to sincerely regret declining it.
With Hart, Morrison, Smoak and Jesus Montero in the mix, the Mariners are awash in first base-DH types, so they no longer have a place for Morales. He makes more sense for the Angels, who need a hitter to replace the departed Mark Trumbo. But the Angels appear more interested in Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez, who'll be cheaper and won't require them to surrender a draft pick as compensation.
Boras has proved in the past that he can find good deals for players who are being squeezed by the market, but he certainly appears to be in a box with Morales. And it might take him until January or even February to find his way out.
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